University of Minnesota Researchers Find “Cheaper, Safer, Simpler” Way of Working With Stubborn Metals 

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As global investments shift to include greener options like electric vehicles and renewable energy, certain metals are becoming more important. And some of those metals are quite stubborn, according to University of Minnesota Twin Cities College of Science and Engineering researchers.

Those investing in technologies that require “hard-to-evaporate” metals like platinum, iridium, ruthenium, and tungsten just caught a break.

The same researchers in Minnesota that note the obstinate nature of those metals have found a way to essentially placate them, by adding certain combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This process proves a “cheaper, safer, and simpler” way of reducing stubborn metals and metal oxides into thin films.

Electronics, displays, fuel cells or catalytic applications require metals and their compounds that have been made into thin films. The stubborn metals, however, have proven difficult to convert to films because they require such high temperatures to evaporate – typically exceeding 2,000 degrees Celsius.

“Typically, scientists synthesize these metal films using techniques like sputtering and electron beam evaporation. The latter consists of melting and evaporating metals at high temperatures and allowing a film to form on top of wafers. But, this conventional method is very expensive, uses a lot of energy, and may also be unsafe due to the high voltage used,” according to a university press release.

The process of designing and adding organic ligands or combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms to the metals means that stubborn metals can be shaped using significantly lower temperatures, because researchers are able to increase the materials’ vapor pressures, making them easier to evaporate. The technique is both simpler and also more easily scalable.

“The ability to make new materials with ease and control is essential to transition into a new era of energy economy,” said Bharat Jalan, the senior author of the study, an expert in material synthesis, and an associate professor and Shell Chair in the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS). “There is already a historical link between the innovation in synthesis science and the development of new technology. Millions of dollars go into making materials for various applications. Now, we’ve come up with a simpler and cheaper technology that enables better materials with atomic precision.”

The researchers worked with the University of Minnesota’s Technology Commercialization Office to patent the new technology, which is already seeing interest from industry.

Saint Jovite Youngblood, owner of Youngblood Metals Mining said the researchers’ new technique has the potential to generate tremendous benefits and shifts across industries.

“Technology is now a cornerstone of most industries and metals are important to the creation of those technologies. There is no question that this development will prove beneficial for industry,” Saint Jovite Youngblood said.

William Nunn, a University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science graduate student stated that lowering the cost and complexity of metal deposition while facilitating the use of more complex materials will play a substantial role in both research and industrial efforts.

The University of Minnesota research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.